Similar to every other language, the Japanese language has a long line of rich and deep history. Over time, this language has morphed and evolved, reflecting the historical progression and societal changes.
If you’ve been taking Japanese classes or have the desire to do so, take a moment to read how the Japanese language you know today, came to be!
To get to the very beginnings of a language, one needs to trace down the origins of not just the language, but also its native speakers. Unfortunately, this is an entire mystery when it comes to Japan.
Historians believe that Old Japanese, Ryukyuan and Ainu languages were derived from travellers that came from other parts of East Asia and various Pacific islands nearby. It’s been theorised that modern Japanese lineages started with the Jomon people who migrated into the Japanese archipelago from their homeland in Southeast Asia. The second wave of immigrants came from present-day Korea, during the Yayoi period.
Unfortunately, there’s little substantial evidence of this fact and should we try to dive in a little further, we’ll come up with little to no leads. Moreover, it’s not known what language where spoken by the Old Japanese people during the Jomon and Yayoi period.
How the language came about and developed is truly a mystery that has yet to crack!
Japanese and Chinese
Before the Japanese that we know now was developed, the archipelago had adopted Chinese as the language of communication. Chinese characters first came as imported goods from China, before Confucianism came over and started propagated its ideology, simultaneously improving Chinese literacy and comprehension.
Since the Japanese language had no written form, the Heian court started to use diacritical marks with the Chinese text, allowing the Japanese to restructure the writing that suits the rules of Japanese grammar. The Japanese language finally evolved to have its first ever writing script around the 8th century – Kanji.
Japan And Its Hierarchical Society
The Japanese language, as with any language, provides an insight into the hierarchical structure within the society. Take a look at the origins of Hiragana, for instance. This writing script was invented by women who were denied higher education and by extension, Chinese literacy. Thus, why it is referred to as onna-de (ladies’ hand) and was used as the primary script for Heian-era literature by court women.
Another attribute of the Japanese language that reflects its society is the inclusion of 3 main politeness levels: kudaketa (plain form), teinei (simple polite form) and keigo (advanced polite form). To use the wrong polite level in a conversation can be regarded as rude and even offensive, bearing detrimental consequences for the speaker.
Whilst learning the history of the language and the language itself may seem like 2 separate matters, in actuality, the former helps to provide context to the things you’re learning. It will help you navigate not only the language better, but the Japanese society as a whole.